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Blue Ridge "Still Figuring This Out"

By Ted Brewster

The Blue Ridge School Board conducted a work session and a business meeting via Zoom on August 27th. Members were appropriately separated around the tables, some of them wearing face masks. All of them were more concerned with details about re-opening the schools than with an infrastructure assessment provided by a contractor.

Quad 3 representative Sam Scarantino offered an outline of a "facility study" completed by his company covering a "visual evaluation of the schools' infrastructure," complete with estimates of the costs that might be involved in remedying the deficiencies they found. The estimates were worst-case figures, not listed during the meeting, but considered unrealistic, since they were the sum total of all items considered separately. The study prioritized its findings by defining the period of time, in years, that each item should be addressed. For example, a full 18% of the total was in paving: completely replacing all of the parking lots within the next 3 years. The study also recommended replacing all of the windows and doors.

In response, Superintendent Matthew Button said that, while interest rates are low at the moment, making financing cheaper, with things around the district "a little bit hectic" at the moment, it might be best to bring Mr. Scarantino back next year for another look.

Mr. Button, before launching into an update on his re-opening plan, announced that Food Service Manager Linda Cole-Koloski had just that day been notified that the district had received approval to participate in the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) program of the US Department of Agriculture. The details are complicated – for example, for students off campus for 3 days a week – but it essentially means free breakfasts and lunches for all students for the coming school year. A description of the program should become available soon on the district website.

Mr. Button said that the staff is still working on assembling the two groups of students that will divide the school week. He said that the student information system allows the discrimination of students by households; some students have different last names, some live with grandparents, etc. School counselors are helping to sort out such things.

Transportation scheduling is also still being tweaked, but should be completed by August 3 so that parents can schedule child care as necessary.

The schedule may also accommodate only half-day (on-line) instruction on Wednesdays, allowing teachers more time to prepare.

Director of Curriculum & Instruction Matthew Nebzydoski said that the schools will have to do better at on-line instruction than for the last quarter last year. Staff will have to learn how to manage the mix of in-person and on-line instruction. Each student will have to be accounted for at least once each day. The Blue Ridge cyber school has a fairly rigorous attendance and monitoring capability which has alienated some families who prefer the commercial cyber charter schools, whose schedules are more flexible. Mr. Button said that the district is looking into adding more flexibility to its own cyber options.

In any case, with everyone studying on a computer, where will the computers come from? Blue Ridge placed an order for more Chromebooks earlier in the summer, but must compete with everyone else around the country who is ordering them, from big banks to very big school systems. There is no guarantee that there will be enough of them available when school starts; "We just don't know," he said. The district has about 500 currently available. Distribution of Chromebooks will begin with the neediest; some families have 3 (or more) children at home, and parents who may also work from home.  It is understood that in the primary grades, the pupils need more "hands-on" help, learning to read and write. The high school may become almost entirely "paperless."

Mr. Button reported legal advice on 3 issues. One of them, a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the teachers to add 15 minutes to the beginning of the school day to help get the day started, has already been resolved. Another, to restrict travel by staff to "hot spots" on their own time, would have to be implemented by resolution. In any case, the district will not approve any professional travel, nor will there be any field trips for teachers and/or students. Scheduling of the annual trip to Washington is still way up in the air.

The third recommendation caused a fair amount of debate: teachers with children in the district could be allowed to bring them to the school five days a week, instead of coming under the hybrid schedule. Some thought this would be unfair to other parents. The recommendation was made as a way to "maintain staffing levels," and minimize teacher absences in the face of a state-wide shortage of suitable substitutes. In the end, Board President Jessica Wright asked each of her colleagues to state a position. The consensus was to survey the teachers on the subject. Should the recommendation be accepted, the district and the teachers would have to agree on another MOU, perhaps by the time of the next board meeting.

Once they got into the business agenda, the board approved a few measures connected with the COVID emergency. One was an update to the board's policy governing staff medical leave. Two new pieces of legislation called the Emergency Paid Sick Leave Act and the Family and Medical Leave Expansion Act (including "intermittent leave during emergency paid sick leave") extend access to paid leave during the COVID crisis.

As if all the foregoing wasn't enough complication, there were also a pair of measures required by the state Department of Education that define the district's response to the COVID emergency. Essentially redundant, the measure first describes the district's plan to address the crisis, then make application to the state for permission to implement the plan. As Mr. Button said, there's "no win-all situation in this one."

To watch for yourself how the school board and its administrators so nimbly keep all of these balls in the air, consider attending the next board meeting, scheduled for August 17, 2020. The meeting may be in-person, or electronic, or both. Keep an eye on the district website for more information, including the full re-opening plan, such as it is.

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Mountain View Considers Hybrid Option

By Ted Brewster

Once again the Mountain View School Board met in the high school auditorium to ensure proper distancing, as well as using the Google Meet platform for remote observers. They were 45 minutes late getting started, following an executive session that Board President Jason Richmond said covered negotiations and a memorandum of understanding with the teachers' organization that was added to the agenda at the last minute. Despite some technical glitches, the meeting went forward and introduced an alternative "hybrid" option for re-opening the schools should a full in-person schedule not be feasible.

The meeting opened with a presentation of new handbooks by Elementary School Principal Chris Lake. Some of it wasn't available to the remote audience, and his illustrations of how classrooms have been modified to accommodate new rules weren't visible. He said that spacing in a full classroom would be "not quite" 6 feet; a hybrid schedule would provide more spacing because only half of the students would be physically present at a time. Signage and floor markings will help keep traffic moving in the proper directions.  The board later approved the Elementary School handbooks without further discussion.

Maintenance Supervisor also had a presentation, demonstrating an electrostatic sanitizing machine. He told the board that once a room is cleaned, the machine is used to spray a fine mist that kills any remaining germs, sanitizing a room in 3 minutes or less. The chemicals used in the machine are deemed safe; he sanitized the school board as he spoke.

The report presented by Board Treasurer Mike Talabiska showed a transfer of over $375,000 to the debt service fund in June, from which $407,712 was spent paying down the debt incurred for the renovations done over the past 2 years. The general fund took in $2.5 million, spent $3 million, leaving a balance of about $1.4 million. Business Manager Tom Witiak later said that he is already researching ways to save money to minimize the deficit that was planned into the budget. And the board is already considering applying for an exception that would allow a tax increase over the state mandated index next year. According to Mr. Witiak, planning for the next budget should begin in December, or January 2021 at the latest.

Another expense to the general fund was an additional loan of $30,000 to the cafeteria fund, which took in only $137 in June for lunch payments, and received almost $27,000 from federal and state subsidies. But the cafeteria spent almost $58,000 in June. Between October of last year and this latest, the district's general fund has "loaned" the cafeteria a total of $120,000. These "loans" are usually written off by the auditors at the end of a fiscal year. Another $3.5 million in bills was approved for July.

The board accepted the retirement of Paraprofessional Veronica ("Ronnie") Thomas as of the end of August with considerable regret. Dr. Lake, Dr. Elia and several members of the Board expressed the district's debt for Ms. Thomas's work and dedication to Mountain View. "She will be greatly missed," said Dr. Lake. The board also approved solicitation for Ms. Thomas's replacement.

Bus contracts will come up for approval in August. There was some discussion about who would be responsible for cleaning and sanitizing the buses; there was consensus that the district would supply the materials.

The memorandum of understanding with the Mountain View Education Association (the teachers' union) extends the deadline for submitting a letter of intention to retire under the early retirement incentive from March 1 to August 14, to give teachers considering such a move an opportunity before the schools re-open in late August.

During his report to the board, Superintendent Michael Elia presented an outline of an alternative re-opening plan, a "hybrid" option that would divide the student body into 2 groups, each group to receive in-person instruction 2 days a week; the rest of the time instruction would be provided on-line. Dr. Elia said that, while he is "committed" to a full in-person re-opening, the situation could change over the next month making a mixed model more attractive. Full details of the proposal are available on the district's website. The board is expected to make a decision at its meeting on August 10, 2020. "We've got a lot going on," said Dr. Elia.

Hear more about it at the next public meeting of the Mountain View School Board, scheduled for August 10, 2020, beginning as close to 7:00pm as possible, and possibly in the high school auditorium, or maybe on-line. Check the district website for up-to-the-minute details.

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Harford Has A Municipal Authority?

By Ted Brewster

Indeed it does, and its Board of Directors met for the very first time on the evening of July 31st to start getting set up. Members Ron Jackson, Dana Empet, Ashley Jones and Robert Supancik reviewed a draft of Bylaws for the Harford Township Municipal Authority drawn up by township solicitor Jamie Hailstone. The draft will need some tweaks before formal adoption, so in the meantime the members elected Mr. Supancik to the chair, Ms. Jones will be Secretary, and Ms. Empet will be Treasurer. The Vice Chair position was left open for the time being.

Craig Stout had been appointed to the board with the others by the Township Supervisors, but will not be able to fill the seat; the Supervisors are expected to appoint Brad Millard in his place.

The first order of business was to agree to transfer the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) permit for the village water system to the Township itself. Since the Supervisors' idea for the municipal authority was to provide a mechanism for supporting parks and recreation in the township – mostly the ball fields in the village – it was not part of their purpose to operate the authority as a public utility. While the Township does not want to have to operate the water system either, according to Mr. Hailstone the Township Supervisors have agreed to accept responsibility for the DEP permit.

According to Mr. Hailstone, sometime in 2016 the DEP permit was transferred from the private Harford Water Company to the Harford Township Municipal Authority, which at the time was not even known to exist by the Township Supervisors. Jacob Rosen heads up the Water Company, and did have a role with the authority, but has not been very communicative. While Mr. Hailstone tries to untangle the legal mess, Mr. Supancik has tried to obtain minutes, financial documents, or anything else that might help get it all straightened out, but Mr. Rosen has so far not cooperated.

Okay, so now we have a municipal authority with oversight of the ball field(s). What should it do? Mr. Supancik opened by suggesting adding a walking track for residents of the Harford Village Apartments.  That was set aside temporarily for a discussion about what the ball field property is, how big is it, what are its boundaries, how wet is it and how can it be drained, do we have the right to use the driveway, or to park on the property of the Harford Garage? Etc., etc. And then, how to find money to pay for whatever is decided.

The Board asked the Township Secretary, the estimable and indispensable Carolyn Jennings, to help research deeds and property boundaries. The Authority may need a formal survey, which costs money. Are there easements that apply to the driveway, or to the water company's pipe? Just how much can the Authority lean on the Township?

Questions arose about the purpose of the ball field(s). A softball field was added a couple years ago, but the American Softball Association has backed off, and there doesn't seem to be enough interest among local girls in playing softball any more. With reorganizations in youth baseball (Little League, Cal Ripken, etc.) participation is down there as well. On the other hand, interest in soccer has been on the rise. Could the field area be converted to a soccer pitch, or a multi-purpose facility?

All questions to be pondered before the next scheduled meeting of the Authority's Board of Directors, scheduled now for Friday, October 16, 2020 beginning at 7:30pm in the Harford Township office on Route 547.

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